Call Me, Ishmael
A sermon for Rosh Hashanah 2011/5772
By Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky
For many years I served as an “overflow” rabbi for the High Holidays at a pulpit in suburban Maryland. Each year I drove from New York, eager to renew acquaintances, see old faces, and visit with members of my family who lived nearby. Ten years ago was a Rosh HaShannah unlike any other. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 had happened one week earlier. As I drove on the New Jersey Turnpike south towards Maryland, I could watch the smoke still rising from the pit where the twin towers once stood. The prophet Isaiah’s words were my mantra for the drive down, as I contemplated the absence of the World Trade Center, the meaning of the horrific gap in the Manhattan sky-line, “Your heart will contemplate terror:
Who can account? Who can weigh? Who can count the Towers?” (Isaiah 33:18).
?לִבְּךָ יֶהְגֶּה אֵימָה, אַיֵּה ספֵר? אַיֵּה שׁקֵל? אַיֵּה ספֵר אֶת הַמִּגְדָּלִים
Then, as now, we read a Torah reading divided over the two days of the New Year’s festival. Curiously, the themes of the first day’s Torah reading (Gen. 21) are paralleled in the more famous narrative of the second day of Rosh HaShannah, when we read the Binding of Isaac (Gen. 22). That story, as is well known, has been embraced by the Jewish community as symbolic of Judaism’s existential history. We Jews imagine ourselves as Isaac, with the knife at our throats, bound on the altars of our fathers’ faith. How appropriate a Torah reading for Rosh HaShannah; when the same theme runs as a leitmotif through the liturgy of the day. And how lovely a symbol when the angel calls, “Do not raise your hand against the boy” (Gen 22:12). Is that not the fate we, too, pray for?
Somewhat less well known is the fact that Christianity and Islam also see themselves in the very same story. In the New Testament’s Epistle to the Hebrews 11: 17:19 we read, “By faith Abraham, being tested, offered up Isaac. For having received the promise he was able to offer up his only begotten son…By reckoning that God was able to raise the dead, he got him back – in parable.” Christian interpreters ever since have read the Binding of Isaac, as we call it, as a parable of the death and resurrection of God’s beloved son, Jesus. In the Quran, too, Muslims read the story of Abraham’s son kneeling in the Islamic prayer posture so that his father might offer him in sacrifice to Allah (Quran 37:100-111). The narrative of Abraham and his son’s “submission” to God employs the Arabic root of the word Islam – the story is the Muslims’ founding tale.
Around 1,200 years ago, a rabbi wrote a midrash called Pirke Rabbi Eliezer (PRE). It retells the Torah’s narrative from the Creation story through the death of Miriam, where it abruptly ends. When PRE comes to our Rosh HaShannah Torah readings, the midrash makes it clear that it was written in a milieu where Judaism, Christianity, and Islam co-existed. It speaks of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son as a test of his ability to perform Mitzvot, rather than as the test of faith that Pauline Christianity consistently portrays. The midrash also acknowledges local Islam by matter-of-factly suggesting that Ishmael – considered to be the father of the Arab tribes – successively marries women named Ayesha and Fatima. The former was the Prophet Mohammad’s wife, while the latter was his daughter.
But PRE goes a step or two further in its acknowledgement that our Rosh HaShannah Torah reading is also central to Christianity and Islam. It imagines that our first day’s Torah reading, about Abraham’s expulsion of Ishmael to die in the wilderness with his mother Hagar (Gen. 21), is a severe trial to Abraham. In counting Abraham’s mythical trials, PRE reckons the expulsion of Ishmael is the penultimate trial that Abraham must undergo. The Binding of Isaac (Gen. 22) is the tenth and final trial. The midrash notes in passing that God makes the same promises about Ishmael (countless offspring, a great nation; twelve tribes – Gen 17:20) as God does about Isaac.
Indeed, PRE reads the famous words of God’s call to Abraham in Genesis 22 as a dialogue. The Torah (Gen 22:2) has God command, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac; and offer him as a burnt offering.” The midrash hears it:
God: “Take your son.”
Abraham: “I have two sons.”
God: “Your only son.”
Abraham: “But each is an only son to his mother.”
God: “Whom you love.”
Abraham: “I love each of my sons!”
How extraordinary that the Torah text imagines God’s promises extending to both sons of Abraham, and the rabbinic midrash takes that even further and puts words into Abraham’s mouth: “I love each of my sons.” When we might expect medieval Jewish chauvinism, we get instead a declaration of Abraham’s love for ALL of his offspring. This is an essential lesson for us to learn and relearn every Rosh HaShannah.
It is worth noting that following the encounters in our Rosh HaShannah Torah reading, neither Isaac nor Ishmael are reported in the Torah text as having any further conversation or even contact with Abraham. Perhaps the traumas reported in Genesis 21-22 were just too much for the boys. Nor, for that matter, are Isaac and Ishmael reported engaging with one another. Here, too, we can imagine how the tragedy relentlessly, inevitably drove them apart.
Except for one curious verse, almost a coda to the Rosh HaShannah readings. In Genesis 25:8 we read that “Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age.” In the next verse we are informed, “His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah.” Did they come together to be sure that the old man was really dead and buried? Or did their father’s demise lead them to realize that they really were brothers? In the end, all they had standing across from each other over the open pit, was one another.
“Who can account? Who can weigh? Who can count the Towers?” (Isaiah 33:18).